Australian Outlook

In this section

Mental Health in the Global South in the Wake of COVID-19: The Ghanaian Experience

10 Oct 2021
By Magnus Mfoafo-M’Carthy and Augustina Naami
Some traditional drummers in their face masks look on in Accra, Ghana. Source: Delali92/Shutterstock

In recent months, the discourse on mental health has made media headlines around the world. Mental illness affects almost one fifth of the world’s population, however there are significant treatment gaps between the Global North and South.

Athletes like of Naomi Osaka and Simon Biles are talking about the impact of mental illness on their ability to compete in competitive sports. Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open due to challenges with anxiety and depression. Simon Biles, similarly, withdrew from the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan because of struggles with mental illness. These narratives have renewed conversations regarding mental illness amid a global pandemic.

Globally, the toll of the pandemic on mental health is enormous, as lockdowns, social distancing, and isolation have had a detrimental effect on countless people. Many individuals, not only in the Global North but the Global South as well, have had their mental health impacted. Anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental health issues have resulted from the social isolation associated with the pandemic. The plight of individuals diagnosed with mental illness brings attention to the need for more investment in research and treatment.

The pandemic has indeed unveiled the best and worst in all of us. The lockdowns have brought to the fore the plight of the haves and have-nots in our society. While some families can fend for themselves, others depend on the largesse of philanthropists, non-government organisations (NGOs), and government handouts. While the virus, as we know, is no respecter of persons, treatment may not be equal due to economic and social inequities in our society.

Though the lockdowns may be lifted and liberty to engage in activities of daily living is growing, people are still encouraged to observe social and physical distancing. There is also the need to observe health and hygiene practices. Ghana is a communal society, where many people are at their best when engaged in social activities such as funerals, church services, family gatherings, and the celebration of festivals. Yet in the wake of COVID-19, all these activities are restricted. The resulting isolation puts individuals in a precarious position as they attempt to navigate the challenges associated with the global crisis.

Questions worth asking are how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the psyche of Ghanaians? And how has COVID-19 affected Ghanaians and their mental wellbeing? An important conversation most Ghanaians resist and feel uncomfortable engaging in is that of mental health. Mental health issues are often viewed as an issue of “us versus them” in our discourses due to the stigma associated with it. Mental illness, often described as “the scars we do not see,” plagues many in society. In the wake of the pandemic, the stressors and pressures of life are at an all-time high.

As a testament to the determination to fight the pandemic, it is imperative to engage willingly in the discourse and explore the negativity associated with mental illness. This is the time to seriously engage and find ways of mitigating mental health challenges. Ghanaians must thus confront the proverbial “elephant in the room.” Open discourse on mental illness and government will and investment could alleviate much of the associated pain. Such a change would mean that individuals and their family members would not suffer in silence but may realise the importance of asking for help or reaching out to others for support and guidance. Having open dialogue about mental health could normalise the perception of the illness and reduce suicidality in the country. Also, churches and community-based organisations could be tasked with helping to alleviate the challenges associated with the illness.

In times like this, many people may be struggling with anxiety and the stressors of the pandemic as there appears to be no end in sight. Nevertheless, this might be the perfect time for people to commence reaching out to loved ones. As the author Brené Brown puts it, being vulnerable and open could be cathartic as it dispels fear.

Though the impact of COVID-19 is challenging, we should bear in mind that every cloud has a silver lining. So, it is important to utilise this global crisis as an opportunity to deconstruct some of our social and cultural norms relating to mental illness and find ways of taking care of ourselves and each other. This could be seen as a time to confront and deal with the skeletons/ stigmas in our closets. It is not the time to steer clear of mental health issues. Instead, this is the time to be open, vulnerable, and to actively engage in working together to take care of ourselves. After all, there is no health without mental health!

World Mental Health Day falls on 10 October each year. According to the WHO, the overall objective is to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilise efforts in support of mental health. World Mental Health Day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide.

Magnus Mfoafo-M’Carthy, PhD is Associate Professor in the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.                                                  

Augustina Naami, PhD is Senior Lecturer & Head of Department in the Department of Social Work at the University of Ghana in Legon, Accra.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.